signed with artist’s signature, titled and dated ‘Night Fishing 95’ (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
100 x 100 cm. (39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1995
Galerie Nagoya Humanite, Nagoya, Japan
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Private Collection, Japan
Bijutsu Shuppan Sha, Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works Volume 1 – Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 (illustrated, plate P-1994-019, p. 103).

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Lot Essay

Within the contemporary art world, there is perhaps no artist that more often turns to children for inspiration than Yoshitomo Nara. This begs the question: why is art depicting children not more widely considered a matter of serious discussion? Is it because children belong to an immature stage in human development? Can the subject of the most important portrait in art history be a child? Nara has had many solo exhibitions in his career and his works featuring children as the main subjects have been internationally critically acclaimed both in the art market and in academia. This rare feat is a testament to the power of Nara's work to capture the hearts of countless viewers, especially adults who have parted with childhood forever.

It is very difficult to find examples of paintings that position children as their sole subject matter in Western classical art before the eighteenth century. In the religious paintings of the Renaissance period, Jesus often appears as an infant, but he is always accompanied by the Virgin Mary or other saints— he is never depicted on his own. Other child-like characters, such as putti and cherubs, play accompanying roles in the composition as if they are supporting characters in an elaborate play. Examples of children being used as the main subject within a work of art cannot be found until later periods. The Spanish Golden Age court painter, Velazquez, captured the elegance of the infanta Margaret Theresa (Fig. 1). Merely five years old, the young princess exudes a dignified confidence that exceeds her age. In impressionist painter Mary Cassatt’s famous work Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (Fig. 2), she depicted an impatient child, giving viewers a peek into the life of the middle class. However, this work is mainly the artist’s attempt to use the figure to experiment and express her understanding of colour and space.

The models of his works are never the daughter of a good friend or the son of a tycoon. Nara's real concern is not to express the identity of the figure, nor is he concerned with the theoretical study and technical possibility of visual art. The crux of his artistic output is to articulate the genuine emotional depth of his characters through their colourful facial expressions. The little girl in Night Fishing (Lot 39) sports a ponytail and a red dress. Despite her innocent attire, the expression in her eyes is anything but naive. Looking at the viewers triumphantly with her half-moon eyes, her arrogance is a warning them that they should not even think that she will share her catch. Yoshitomo Nara's characters emote with their vivid and animated expressions, and viewers are able to share the artist's concerns for genuine human experiences when they empathise with the characters. All of his figures have similar features—round faces, high and wide foreheads, big eyes, small noses, mouths that are delineated by a single line, and giant heads atop small bodies. Such remarkable stylisation is reminiscent of the character modelling in classical Japanese painting (Fig. 3) and Ukiyo-e figures (Fig. 4).

The little girl is distinctively the protagonist in this painting. The artist maximises her presence by contrasting the figure with a minimal black background. The effect is similar to Japanese traditional lacquer ware (Fig. 5), the surface is saturated with black pigment; gold powder and other materials are sprinkled on top to form patterns- this visually stunning treatment brings the figure to the forefront. Part of the little girl’s hair in Night Fishing is executed with a dry brush to create texture on the canvas. This provides a contrast to the face, clothing, arms and legs of the figure, fishing rod and the little fish, all of which have been worked to a smooth finish. The textural brush strokes also accentuate the gradient hues on the girl’s face. Nara’s fluency in the language of illustration is apparent in this work through the way in which he preserves the simplicity and succinctness of its visual style. The little girl’s prominent modelling grabs the attention of the viewers first. The myriad of textures and transforming layers further demonstrate to the viewer the rich visual deliberations of Yoshitomo Nara as a mature artist. The DNA of manga and anime can also be found in Nara’s works. As seen in this work, thick black lines are used to delineate the figure so that the modelling is concisely represented. Black lines also divide the body of the little girl into colourful pieces of geometric shapes. By sacrificing linear perspective and three-dimensionality, the artist transcends objective reality into an abstract relationship between lines and planes. This treatment echoes the visual characteristic of Ukiyo-e (Fig. 6). Drawing from a wide variety of references, it is a testament to the artist’s versatility in employing different visual devices.

The age-old adage “less is more” can be applied to the aesthetic judgement Yoshitomo Nara’s exercises in his paintings. The artist insists on using children as his subjects. The little girl in Night Fishing unreservedly expresses her thoughts. Such attitude resonates with the adult viewers when they look at Nara’s paintings. These children remind them of the unbridled freedom that everyone should be able to enjoy.

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